Grafting & Language Etiquette

Grafting: Six Trees to One "Basket"
Grafting: Six Trees to One “Basket”

When native English speakers learn Japanese, they learn the word for “I” and “You”.  In Japan it is uncommon to use “You” but native English speakers use it regularly–in English–and are therefore very likely to use it regularly when speaking Japanese (due to the perpetuation of the habit or simply ignorance of the language etiquette of Japan) As a result, the use of the 2nd person pronoun begins to be absorbed by the Japanese people into the Japanese language.  Soon the usage of “You” will be just as common in Japanese as in English

Similarly in Korea where different levels of respectful language govern the manner of speech in each specific situation (mother-daughter, boss-employee, neighbor-golfing partner, etc.), native-English speakers are likely to carry over their pre-established rules of language etiquette.  Native-English speakers are likely to try to show respect based on the choice of words rather than recognize the importance of the verb ending 요(YO) in Korean speech etiquette.  As a result, Western speech etiquette may become absorbed by the Korean language and respectful verb-endings may become a thing of the past.

It is another case of the classic language vs. culture question: How deep is their connection; and can language be separated from culture, at all?

There is no definitive answer to this question but there are certainly grounds to suggest that though cultural etiquette may be slow to transfer from one nation to another, language etiquette is much faster.  Language etiquette is the rules that make up the general flow of polite speech so that no one is either offended or caught off-guard by some out-of-place word or phrase.  The example above where a native English speaker attempts to address a native Japanese speaker in a casual way (using the 2nd person pronoun Kimi, for instance) would result in some discomfort for the native Japanese speaker and ultimately the native English speaker would be seen as quite a distasteful fellow.  Even people without experience in foreign languages will not find it difficult to comprehend the importance of language etiquette: A son addressing his mother by simply yelling, “Hey, you!” would be–without any information as to the complexity of the mother/son relationship– a clear violation of certain unspoken rules of language.  It is the for this reason that foul language has been termed so: it is a linguistic sign of disrespect.

The problem arises when trying to transfer one’s learned boundaries of what is linguistically acceptable in one particular town in one particular nation to an entirely different town in an entirely different nation.  Take a look at any foreign language textbook these days and you will find that there are references to these differences in linguistic civility but they are small, merely footnotes in the grand show of grammar and vocabulary.  The lack of importance placed on this aspect of language is, to be honest, understandable.  After all, the main goal of many language learners is not native-speaking level but simply conversation level.  This term, conversation, can mean many things but on the basic level it means comfort in speaking about the weather, bodily functions, location & directions, personal hopes and aspirations, and a few other individual-specific themes.  It does not entail a near-native grasp of grammar, vocabulary, or idiomatic expressions in their entirety but only those which are absolutely necessary (first-person past and present tense would be a must at this level).

Conversation-level speaking capabilities are not difficult to attain because they ignore grammar, pronunciation, idioms, and language etiquette and–without attention to these details–will be ever sound foreign to native speakers of the target language.  To illustrate, consider the remarkable phenomenon that takes place when two trees are grafted into one.  The picture above is one fantastic example of this tedious and year-spanning art that in the end creates one tree out of many, trunks and stems combine and share the same energy but are entirely independent genetically. The procedure, in its most simple form, is completed by slicing into the host tree, inserting a branch from another tree into the host, and then securing them together.  Over time the two will fuse together and act as one! It is truly incredible.  But what is more incredible is the fact that the host’s branches will bear fruit of the host tree while the grafted branch bears fruit of entirely its own variety, not genetically altered by the presence of the host.

As is the case in language, though the native English speaker is “grafted” into the host language and can survive and communicate for survival on a basic level, undeniable differences in spoken and written language will continue to exist and will be obvious in comparison to the host.  To say that overcoming such differences and attaining a native-level of language mastery would be difficult is incontrovertible.  The goal, as my tutor told me once, can not be to reach a native speaking level because that only discourages the language learner.

So, what about language etiquette?

The point is, language etiquette is part of the genetic makeup of our branch, so to speak.  It is a nearly immutable characteristic of our native pattern of speech.  Unfortunately, uninformed speakers will oftentimes find themselves in awkward language situations, giving off undesirable first impressions, without ever knowing or thinking they are rude at all because they do not realize the implications that their own language etiquette may have in another language.  Granted, native speakers are often quick to recognize a foreigner and will likely grant the trespass of certain linguistic boundaries without repercussion in most cases.

What is interesting though is that the tendency of native speakers to forgive errors made by non-native speakers may actually be influencing the host language etiquette altogether!  To return to the original example of second-person pronouns in Japanese, it seems to be the case in modern Japanese that the use of such pronouns is becoming more and more prevalent and therefore acceptable in everyday speech!  Without a doubt, this shift in linguistic manners to include and accept the usage of second-person pronouns is attributable to the influx non-native Japanese speakers that carry with them the etiquette of their native language alongside, of course, the overwhelming presence of western media.   Forgiveness on the part of the native-speakers of the East perhaps has left the door open for the proper formalities concerning the second-person pronoun, allowing the oftentimes head-strong and sometimes stubborn Western mind to continue without question to apply the same rules of language etiquette used in his own country.

The eventual repercussions that such shifts in language etiquette will have on the culture of the host nation are unclear and beg once more the question of the depth of the relationship between language and culture.  However, it seems to me quite clear to me that in the end both the “grafted” speaker and the host language undergo changes in their language etiquette due to their interaction (or at least ought to granted both are open to the idea of mutual understanding)  Both parties will incorporate linguistic formalities of the other and exercise them especially in dealings with speakers of that language but I believe that things are taken just one step further than that.  You see–and in my experience this has been so–even in dealings with their kinsmen these speakers (those who have previous interaction with non-native speakers) will incorporate foreign language etiquette almost at a subconscious level.  The subconscious becomes conscious awareness and application and eventually there is no way to tell where one “tree” ended and the other began.

We are a linguistic tree basket.

To round things off, I would like to invite you to contribute!  Do you know any specific language etiquette in your or another language and/or a website that may prove useful to a student or at least complimentary to this post?   If so, please feel free to post the link or your knowledge as a comment.  Your response is always appreciated.

These are a few links that I was able to track down concerning the subject:

  • Japanese Pronouns in Anime : Don’t be fooled by the title, this blog post offers some incredibly detailed insight into what may be little-known to non-native speakers.
  • 10 Things Not to Say While in Buenos Aires: A list of the most important things to avoid in the Spanish language when visiting Argentina.  This may be more along the lines of cultural etiquette but I’ll include it anyway because it is quite good.
  • Korean Verb-Ending Database: A comprehensive database/guide to the VERY important of correct Korean speech. Knowledge of this etiquette (which is not found in English speech…at least as a hierarchy of verb endings) is pivotal to correct speech.

2 thoughts on “Grafting & Language Etiquette

  1. Interesting post; I had not thought of grafting in terms of language. I can’t think of many examples between Spanish and English. One, though, is that in Spanish it is safe to omit the pronoun (I, you) because the verb conjugations are much clearly distinguishable. For instance, in English, I want to eat and you want to eat are congugated the same. In Spanish, however, they are not: yo quiero comer, tu quieres comer; quiero comer, quieres comer. Thus, we often omit the pronoun and go about our speech: Quiero dinero (I want money), Quieren dinero (they want money).

    • That is a good point Mr. Najera! In fact, I find it doubly interesting because it just so happens to be that the omission of the pronoun is also prevalent in Japanese. The difference between Japanese and Spanish however is that–unlike Spanish–the verb conjugations do not help to differentiate speakers. For example *”Tsukarete iru.”* could mean either “I am tired.” or “You are tired.” OR “They are tired.” but the only way to really know which it is will be based on context and previous speech. I find this aspect of the Japanese language fascinating and poetic, adding to the image of a society based more on the whole than on the individual.

      ¡Gracias por tu comentario!

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